Premillennialism and the Alliance Distinctives
Joel Van Hoogen
What relevancy does premillennialism hold for modern evangelicalism? In particular, how relevant is it in giving focus and direction to The Christian and Missionary Alliance? What bearing does premillennialism have on Alliance distinctives? Is ownership of this doctrine really that essential to the future effectiveness of the ministry of the Alliance? In seeking to give answer to these questions it would be wise to set forward some of the distinctives within the Alliance that have uniquely shaped it, distinctives it would affirm as essential components for the future. Five such distinctives are suggested for consideration:
First, The Christian and Missionary Alliance is a missionary denomination. It exists as a denomination primarily to reach the world for Christ. It is foremost an alliance of Christian and missionary churches. It was such an alliance long before it was ever a denomination.
Second, the Alliance has a deeper life message with a strong emphasis on the life of Christ within the believer. There is an expectation of holiness in the child of God because of the wonderful mystery revealed which makes this possible. The mystery is that by faith through death to self, the life of Christ is imparted with power to God's children so that they may live whole and holy lives.
Third, the Alliance has offered to evangelicalism a unique insight into Christology. This is possibly its most significantly distinct contribution to the modern-day Church. This Christology focuses upon the centrality of Christ in everything. Christ is more than the Giver, He is the Gift. With Him the Christian has everything, for in Him are all things. Without Him, one has nothing. The Alliance does say that Jesus is Savior, but would add that He is Salvation. It would affirm that Jesus is Sanctifier, but would add that He is Sanctification. He is Healer, and yet He is more. It is His life, He Himself, that brings health. Over and over it may be emphasized that Jesus is central and all in all. This is the meaning of the fourfold gospel.
Fourth, the Alliance holds to the infallible Word of God. This is not a unique distinctive of the Alliance, but it certainly is a distinctive emphasis which it would affirm as an essential component for its future.
Fifth, the Alliance has a high view of the transcendent integrity of God. This too is not a distinctive unique to The Christian and Missionary Alliance, but it is an emphasis that has found a vital expression in its folds. Dr. A.W. Tozer, for one, was used wonderfully of God to encourage and champion this high and lofty focus upon God in the churches of the Alliance.
As the premillennial position of the Alliance is considered, it should be weighed in the light of these five distinctives. Conversely, these five distinctives can be understood more fully in the light of this position on premillennial doctrine. To develop this understanding, the following outline will be followed:
1. Summary of the three basic positions on the millennium.
2. The Statement of Faith of The Christian and Missionary Alliance and the corresponding views of Dr. A.B. Simpson, its founder.
3. The historical development of millennialism.
4. Interpretations of Revelation 20:1-6.
5. The relevance of premillennialism for the future of The Christian and Missionary Alliance.
1. Summary of the Three Basic Millennial Positions
It is not possible without some significant generalizing to discuss the various eschatological positions on the millennium. There is a wide range of interpretive variance in each of the three positions outlined.
Postmillennialism is a theological position that affirms the second coming of Jesus Christ at the end of the millennial period.
The millennium is to be a literal period of 1,000 years of peace and righteousness in the age preceding the return of Jesus Christ. During this time the gospel will be universally preached and broadly received. Postmillennialists generally hold to a spiritual interpretation which states, “the kingdom of God is a state of society in which the will of God is done in the hearts of `born again' believers.”1 Thus the kingdom will grow until the world is Christianized. At the end of the millennium an outbreak of wickedness will occur, identified as the Great Tribulation. Then Christ shall return, bringing a general resurrection of the dead and ushering in the eternal state with a new heaven and earth.
Amillennialism is a theological position which affirms the second coming of Christ after a millennial period. Amillennialists are not truly “a” (no) “millennial,” since they do believe in a spiritualized millennium. The 1,000 years are to be understood as figurative of the completed present period from the resurrection of Christ to His second coming. Christ's reign in this millennium is spiritual in the lives of those newborn and occurs simultaneously as this evil age progresses becoming worse and worse. At the same time it is acknowledged that Satan is, in this time, uniquely bound so that he may not deceive the nations, guaranteeing that some from every tribe and tongue will believe in Christ. This age will end in the climax of a great tribulation, after which Christ shall return and usher in the eternal state with a new heaven and earth.
Premillennialism is the belief that Christ's second coming precedes His earthly rule and the visible implementation of His kingdom of peace and righteousness. He shall personally reign upon the earth with His saints.
The 1,000 years will be literal. Christ's reign upon the earth will be literal. Satan will be bound so that he cannot promote evil in man's fallen nature and in the social order. During this time God will bring into one both the natural and the spiritual Israel and provide the literal fulfillment of His promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their seed. This age will commence after the Great Tribulation and will conclude with one final outbreak of evil, at which point Christ will put down all evil and usher in the eternal state with a new heaven and earth.
2. The Statement of Faith of the Alliance and the Corresponding Views of Dr. A.B. Simpson
Article 11 of the statement of faith of the Alliance reads, “The second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ is imminent and will be personal, visible, and premillennial. This is the believer's blessed hope and is a vital truth which is an incentive to holy living and faithful service.”
As the Alliance moved toward a more formal denominational structure, they adopted a formal statement of faith at their annual Council in 1965, which was derived from long-held beliefs within the movement. As such there was little debate and disagreement on the positions brought forward. In the discussion from the floor on Article 11 the term “imminent” was opposed by a small contingent, but it was defeated soundly. A few also voiced opposition to the term “premillennial.” They were, according to Dr. Keith Bailey, a witness to the debate, “stomped” by the affirmative voters. Such a unified embrace of this doctrine was to be expected, when the strong premillennial sentiment of the founder of the Alliance is taken into consideration.
Any casual reading of the poetry of Dr. Simpson will reveal a common theme celebrating the premillennial return of Christ. In A.B. Simpson's book, The Coming One, his view of the millennium and his perspective on the importance of the doctrine in the life of the Church are stated. Dr. Simpson states the belief that Christ is yet to come to earth to complete His glorious redemptive plan. He rejected any notion that the promises regarding Christ's millennial coming were fulfilled in the death of the saints, the destruction of Jerusalem, a spiritual indwelling or in any spiritual application through the Church. He spoke against a spiritualizing interpretation of Old Testament prophetic passages. He spoke against the blotting out of the literal Israel from God's future plans. He wrote, “There is a double thread running through the warp and woof of ancient prophecy. There is the crimson line of the cross, but there is the golden thread of the coming glory. . . . It was necessary that He should fulfill the vision of the cross and it is just as necessary that He shall fulfill the vision of the King.”2
The rejection of a material, terrestrial millennium for a higher spiritual one of heart or heaven (such as amillennialism may design) was to Dr. Simpson compatible with spiritualizing the creation account or the liberalizing of Jesus into an idea with no historical reality. “Such a rejection,” he wrote, “takes out of God's Book all reality and makes everything merely a dream as vague as the fooleries of Christian Science. Thank God He is real and we are real and Christ is real and the coming glory is real.”3
With similar vibrato, Dr. Simpson reacted against the more commonly held postmillennial views of the day, calling them counterfeit millenniums:
Man has tried to make his own millennium. Poetry has dreamed of it, and degraded it into a sensuous paradise. Patriots and optimists have drawn the vision of a golden age of liberty, equality, peace, and plenty, and have seen only anarchy, license, and misery arise at the touch of their deceptive wand. Moralists have toiled for purity, temperance, and virtue, and dreamed of a day when social reform will have blotted out the last plague spot from our cities, only to see wickedness, crime, and the curse of alcohol, and woman's shame increase with increasing civilization. And Christian reformers have expected a spiritual millennium, in which the Gospel shall cover the myriad populations of earth, and make every land a holy, happy paradise of love and purity; but alas! the lands that are the most evangelized are sometimes the farthest from millennial piety or purity; and were all the world to reach tomorrow the condition to which Christian lands have attained in the three centuries since the Reformation, earth would still be a sight to break the heart of Him who died for us. Nay, God has something better for His weary, hungry children than any of man's counterfeit millenniums.4
3. The Historical Development of Millennialism
It should be noted that the doctrinal thought of Dr. A.B. Simpsonand The Christian and Missionary Alliance, for that matterare products of their times. The Alliance was born during a period of time when premillennial thought and its attendant biblicism were being renewed in church history. To help contextualize the premillennial thought of Dr. Simpson's day, the historical flow of millennial thought from the apostles down to the present follows.
The Premillennial Early Church
The observation shared by the vast majority of historians is that the early Church was premillennial. George N.H. Peters chronicles in proposition 72 of his voluminous work, The Theocratic Kingdom, a compelling historical argument demonstrating that the premillennial doctrine of the kingdom, as preached by the apostles, was taught by the early churches.5
The following is a sampling of a few of the church and secular historians whose studies have concurred with George N.H. Peters' basic proposition: Edward Gibbon, author of the classic work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; J.C.I. Gieseler, Professor of Theology and highly acclaimed church historian in his day, who himself was not a premillennialist; Henry Sheldon, Professor of Historical Theology at Boston University; Philip Schaff, prominent German reformed theologian, church historian and author of the monumental eight volume, History of the Christian Church; Adolf Harnack, Lutheran theologian and church historian; Will Durant, author of the multi-volume work, The Story of Civilization; Paul Boyer, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture.
Many of the early Church Fathers revealed a premillennial indoctrination. The Epistle of Barnabas (c. A.D. 70) was written only a little after the martyrdom of the apostle Paul. On the creation week, it says:
Consider what this signifies, He finished them in six days. The meaning of it is this; that in six thousand years the Lord God will bring all things to an end. For with Him one day is as a thousand years. . . . [T]herefore . . . in six days (i.e., 6,000 years) shall all things be accomplished. . . . [W]hen His Son shall come and abolish the wicked one, and judge the ungodly; and shall change the sun, and moon and stars; then He shall gloriously rest on that `seventh day,' i.e., millennium.6
Papias (c. A.D. 60-130) was reputed to have been taught by John the apostle. Fanciful images of a millennial period are attributed to him.
Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165) wrote, “I and others who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned, and enlarged, as the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare.”7 Martyr's clear premillennialism prompted Harnack to observe, “That a philosopher like Justin, with a bias towards an Hellenic construction of the Christian religion, should nevertheless have accepted its chiliastic elements is the strongest proof that these enthusiastic expectations were inseparably bound up with the Christian faith down to the middle of the second century.”8
Irenaeus (A.D. 140-203) was the disciple of Polycarp, the disciple of John the apostle. He affirmed the millennium and two distinct resurrections.
Tertullian (A.D. 170-220) believed in the primacy of the literal sense of Scripture and that a literal millennium would follow the resurrection of the dead. He went deeply into the book of Daniel and taught that Daniel 9:24-27 predicted both the time of Christ's birth and death. He saw the millennium as an interim kingdom before the final translation of the saints into heaven. Tertullian fascinatingly observed, “At His last coming He will favor with His acceptance and blessing the circumcision also, even the race of Abraham, which by and by is to acknowledge Him.”9
Hippolytus (A.D. 170-236) was a presbyter of the church of Rome. He set out the most complete source of the customs of the ante-Nicene church in his Commentary on the Book of Daniel, a premillennial eschatology.
Nephos of Egypt (first half of the third century) wrote a tract entitled Against the Allegorist in which he defended the literal, traditional interpretation of the millenarian promises in Revelation 20 and 21.10
Sextus Julius Africanus (died A.D. 240) was a friend of the anti-millennialist Origen; in spite of this, he “. . . adopted the familiar apocalyptic notion of a “world week” of seven thousand years. . . . According to the usual form of this scheme, history will come to an end six thousand years after creation and will usher in a `Sabbath' of a thousand years.”11
Methodius (died A.D. 311) spoke of two resurrections and the seventh millennium of the creation.
Victorinus (died A.D. 304) held to two distinct resurrections as taken from Revelation 20, separated by 1,000 years. He expresses the seventh day as an eschatological image of the millennium.
Lactantius (died after 317 A.D.) was a confessor to Constantine. He was premillennarian and also interpreted the three-and-one-half years of the last half of the tribulation to be a three-and-one-half year reign of terror by a Syrian king, the real Anti-Christ who will be defeated prior to the millennium by the Great King from heaven, who will then set up 1,000-year reign with the just, over the remnants of earth. During this time, the “Prince of Demons” will be chained in prison and freed at the end to lead an unsuccessful assault against God's people. God will then bring about a total transformation of this natural order. The second resurrection will then take place in which the unbelieving dead will rise to eternal punishment.12
Peters concluded that the premillennial return of Christ and subsequent kingdom rule was taught by the early disciples and received by the young Church and that amillennial teaching was not clearly evidenced in Church history until the time of Augustine.
Development of Amillennialism
Amillennialism first appeared in the negative sense with no positive proposition regarding the millennium. Thus, the first expressions of amillennialism were a reaction against the gross sensual extremes that characterized some expressions of the dominant literal view of the millennium. It was also trying to put distance between the Christian doctrine of the end times and what was considered Jewish sensualism.
Origen (A.D. 185-253) was the most prominent of the negative amillennialists. It was he who popularized the allegorical method of biblical interpretation which provided a means by which Greek philosophical thought could be wed to Old and New Testament passages. With this view he maintained that there were three levels of interpretation for every passage of Scripture: the literal, the moral and the allegorical. He affirmed that the literal interpretation was not essentially the correct one. Such a hermeneutic enabled him to distance himself from the literal and “sensual” sense found in much of the prophetic passages of Scripture.
A positive amillennialism did not appear until the writings of Augustine (A.D. 354-430). Augustine was the chief architect of Catholic theology up to the time of Thomas Aquinas. His amillennial scheme is still the foundational thought behind Catholic and Reformed eschatology and millenarianism to this day. So strongly were his views adopted that church authorities went so far as to expurgate from the works of Irenaeus and Victorinus all millennial taint.13
Augustine was highly influenced by the Neoplatonism of Plotinus (A.D. 205-270) and the allegorical method of Philo, which Origen developed for Christian thought. This influence was profoundly dualistic. “Plato believed that the ultimate goal of a human being was to arrive at a disembodied state of pure spirit. . . . The material, and especially the body . . . was looked upon as evil and to be loathed.”14
This dualism is seen in Augustine's writings on the afterlife and influenced his development of purgatory as a place to “ . . . cleanse them from the remnants that are owing to this cement of flesh.”15
The influence of Platonic thought is also revealed in the expressive monastic forms of Augustine's day, forms that he, in some degree, followed. Refusing to marry his common-law wife and the mother of his son, he became a celibate monk, with a monastic order following after his example.
This dualism ultimately resulted in Augustine's development of a new concept of the kingdom and the millennium. It is important when considering the history of this doctrine to note that Augustine's belief in a spiritual millennium was not the recovering of an old truth neglected, but the establishment of a new scheme, not advanced by anyone before him. Historian Christopher Dawson well observes that Augustine is “entirely alienated from the realistic literalism of the old apocalyptic tradition.”16
As A.E. Pinell lucidly demonstrated, Augustine never attempted to refute millennialism but simply ignored it on the grounds that its materialism was unseemly. Augustine states:
This opinion would not be objectionable, if it were believed that the joys of the saints in that Sabbath should be spiritual only, and consequent on the presence of God. But as he asserts that those who then rise again shall enjoy the leisure of immoderate carnal banquets, famished with an amount of meat and drink such as not only to shock the feeling of the temperate, but even to surpass the measure of credulity itself, such assertions can be believed only by the carnal. They who do believe them are called by the spiritual “Chiliasts” which literally may be millenarians.17
Pinell gives further light on this prejudice Augustine had against millennialism by noting:
As Platonistically conditioned as he was and given his monastic mentality, it was understandable that Augustine should have reacted as he did to the millennialism of his day. His basic aversion to thinking of any future rest for the saints, as including any kind of material enjoyments, showed heavily in the reason he gave for rejecting millennialism. He said he could believe in millennialism, if it only stated that “the joys of saints in the Sabbath shall be spiritual.” Otherwise, he said, “this opinion would not be objectionable.” That is, to please him, an eschatological system had to be free of references to future material enjoyments. Not finding in millennialism the pure spiritual system he sought from the Christian writings of past history or from anything else, the only recourse he had left was his large and resourceful intellect.18
It should be noted that with the rise of Constantine and the graduation of Christianity to the official religion of the Roman Empire, there was little need to perpetuate a millennial doctrine of hope for the end of all human government upon the earth and the ushering in of a distinctly divine one. It should also be noted that from this time forward, up through the reformation period, until the early nineteenth century, the Church was wedded to the leadership of, or allegiance to, earthly powers and rulers. Each of the three main Protestant traditions of the sixteenth centuryLutheranism, Calvinism and Anglicanismhad the support of the state, even as they continued in the same Constantinian (amillennial) approach to theology.19 It is noteworthy then that with the dawning of the nineteenth century and the increasing separation of church and state, there was also a significant shift in church doctrine towards premillennial thought.
It can be said in review that Origin's attempts to allegorize, Augustine's dualistic Platonism20 and Constantine's Christianization of human government effectively killed a vigilant spirit of defense for and development of premillennial theology. Amillennialism was not the primary historical testimony of the Church; rather, it was premillennialism that expressed the hopes of the early Church. Amillennialism did not rise out of a rediscovery of biblical truth, but out of reaction to a “Jewish sensualism” that was incompatible with the “Hellenistic dualism” of the day. Amillennialism was born out of the convergence of spiritualizing interpretation, dualistic philosophy that disparaged the physical, and realized social triumphalism. These three are generally recognized in evangelical thought as negative developments in the Church.
Yet, in spite of this suspicious genesis, today's amillennialists are satisfied to identify their position and, in particular, their reading of Revelation 20:1-6, as defensible through their allegiance to the teaching of Augustine. Anthony Hoekema, for example, states in defense of an amillennial interpretation, “The amillennial understanding of Revelation 20:1-6 as describing the reigning souls of deceased believers with Christ in heaven has had good standing in the church since the days of Augustine.”21
Development of Postmillennialism
Postmillennialism appeared on the historical scene in the seventeenth century with the Age of Enlightenment. Augustine's anti-materialism was increasingly incompatible with a budding age of science and a focus upon a material universe. Literal measurements and calculations conflicted with the allegorical method of interpreting nature and God's Word.
With Daniel Whitby (1683-1726), a Unitarian, postmillennialism was introduced. Eventually there came about two kinds of postmillennialism. One was liberal and secular, with adherents like John Locke and Thomas Paine, and later liberals such as Shirley Jackson Case, author of Christianizing the Social Order. Over time there appeared many other books trumpeting the social triumph of Christianity. The other was a conservative postmillennialism represented in a chain of succession by Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield and Loraine Boettner. The succession of two world wars dealt a death blow to the optimism of postmillennialism. Today the new Reconstructionism has arisen, which makes a curious blend of the two, at times militantly combining a conservative view of Scripture and the gospel with the law and its social demands and political mandates.
The Renewal of the Premillennial Doctrine
One should be aware that there is not a century from the time of the early Church where there is not some record of premillennial teaching and thought. Paul Boyer's book, When Time Shall Be No More, demonstrates that even during the Middle Ages the religion of the populace had strong material, premillennial hopes.22 The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology confirms this point, stating that the allegorical interpretation of Augustine became the official doctrine of the Church during the medieval period. In defiance of the main teaching of the Church, however, the earlier apocalyptic premillennialism continued to be held by certain counterculture groups.23
Long before John Darby (1800-1882) was sketching his first dispensational charts, Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202) had sketched his three ages of law, grace and the Spirit, and was publishing his Book of Figures charting out these ages. Out of an inductive study of the book of Revelation he concluded that the chiliasts were right.24
John Wycliffe and John Hus, morning stars of the Reformation, were avowed millennialists. Premillennialists in the Reformation period also existed with more and more frequency, e.g., Joseph Mede, Isaac Watts, Hugh Latimer and Puritan John Bunyan, all argued for the literal interpretation of all the prophetic passages of Scripture. Bunyan, for example, wrote on Zechariah 14:4, “His feet shall stand in that day upon the Mount of Olives,” arguing against the spiritualizers of God's Word. He says, “This is the day of His second coming,” and then asks, “Where is the Mount of Olives? Not within thee! But that which is without Jerusalem.” On the millennium, Bunyan further writes:
God's blessing the Sabbath day, and resting on it from all His works, was a type of that glorious rest that saints shall have when the six days of this world are totally ended. . . . This day is called a great day . . . which shall end in the eternal judgment of the world. God hath held this forth by several other shadows, such as the Sabbath of weeks, the Sabbath of years, and the great Jubilee. . . . In the seventh thousand years of the world will be that Sabbath when Christ shall set up His kingdom on earth: according to that which is written, “They lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.”25
David Larsen in his book Jews, Gentiles and the Church makes note that Martin Bucer, successor to Zwingli, and Theodore Beza, Calvin's successor, started a small but growing trend returning to chiliasm.26 Robert Baillie in 1645 claimed that most of the divines in London were chiliasts. By 1649 Grotius had counted eighty books published in England expounding the millennium.27 Larsen also demonstrates a growing trend among theologians, church leaders and political leaders, such as Oliver Cromwell, to reevaluate the role of Israel in the plans of God. There was an ever-increasing embrace of the thought that Israel would have a part in the glorious plans of God and that Old Testament prophecy contained not only the glory of the New Testament Church but a literal promise for the glory of Israel. Among those who held to an eschatological belief in the restoration of Israel were such Puritans as John Cotton, Thomas Shepherd, John Eliot, the American Mathers and John Owen.
Owen wrote, “The Jews shall be gathered from all parts of the earth where they are now scattered, and brought home into their `homeland' before the `end of all things' prophesied by St. Peter can occur.”28 It would be stretching it to say that these individuals were premillennialists. What would be a safe statement is that such a growing sentiment added to the ultimate climate in which premillennialism was widely embraced.
The new rise of premillennial thought, though strongly initiated by John Darby, was not the sole domain of one version of dispensational thought. There were those like Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, John Charles Ryle, who wrote the Premillennial Creed, and those who would now likely be called progressive dispensationalists, such as George N.H. Peters, author of the three-volume The Theocratic Kingdom; Nathaniel West, author of One Thousand Years in Both Testaments; and W.C. Stevens, a teacher at Nyack College and author of Revelation, the Crown Jewel of Biblical Prophecy.
According to secular historian Boyer,
The dispensational premillennial movement corresponded to, and further encouraged, a growing confidence among the everyday Christian that he or she could readily understand the clear teaching of Scripture. Thus premillennial teaching and thought was a strong influence in the rise of Bible institutes throughout North America, as well as in the Bible conference movement. Premillennialism was strongly wed to a confidence in the verbally inspired, inerrant Word of God and gave impetus to the development of early twentieth-century fundamentalism.
This new movement also gave strength to a strong missions movement and evangelical thrust which ran counter to the progressive or postmillennial hopes for an advancing humanity. Premillennialism gave an answer to the false evolutionary hopes of Darwinism for the human race. “Far from paralyzing . . . missionary effort,” wrote Nathaniel West in 1879, “premillennial belief was . . . one of the mightiest incentives to earnestness in preaching the Gospel to every creature, until He comes, not to make the world better, but to save people out of the world.”30 Dr. A.B. Simpson saw a twofold incentive arising from what he called the blessed hope: encouraging a missionary message of warning, and also awakening and issuing a call to the practice of holiness in preparation for Christ's coming.31 It was this renewed premillennialism, with its inclination for the clear, literal teaching of the Bible and a refocused mission to the world, that swept up new church movements in the late 1800sincluding that movement which would become The Christian and Missionary Alliance.
4. Interpretations of Revelation 20:1-6
And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time.
I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:1-6)
Dr. Simpson's and the Alliance belief in the millennium does not rest on Revelation 20 alone, but on the numerous prophecies of the Old Testament that herald the coming Messiah who will reign on David's throne and rule over a peaceful kingdom. The truth of the Messianic age rests on the literal interpretation of these many Old Testament passages. The primary contribution that Revelation 20:1-6 makes regarding the Messianic Kingdom is to disclose its duration of 1,000 years. It should be considered significant that this duration is mentioned six times within this brief passage.
However, because the amillennial/postmillennial advocates deny the relevance of Old Testament passages and promises (conceiving all these promises either to be spiritually transferred to the Church where possible, or made null and void on account of Israel's unbelief), the scriptural ground for the debate between them and premillennialists has been generally narrowed down to Revelation 20:1-6. Therefore, a brief overview of the respective competing interpretations of this passage is in order. This will be followed by a framing of the historic expectation for a millennium that qualifies how the audience was likely to read the author's intent.
Chapter 19 is the key passage in Revelation describing the second coming of Christ to earth. This second coming is a key theme of the book according to Revelation 1:7, “Look, he is coming. . . .” Chapter 20 follows in clear chronological order and describes two bodily resurrections separated by a period of 1,000 years. In between them, Satan shall be bound, and those first raised shall reign with Christ upon the earth. At the end of this time there shall be a brief release of Satan followed by his being cast into the Lake of Fire, the second resurrection and the final judgment. Then the eternal state shall be established.
As has already been observed, this interpretation of Revelation 20:1-6 finds its historical roots in the novel thinking of Augustine on the passage. The interpretation is figurative and not literal.
Chapter 20 is not viewed chronologically by the amillennialist nor by the postmillennialist as following chapter 19, but rather as a return to the time of the present period of the Church.
This would not be the natural rendering when considering the succession of kai eidon (And I saw) in Revelation 19:11, 17; 20:1, 4, 11; 21:1. This repeated phrase seems to introduce an unfolding series of interrelated visions which moves progressively forward, not retrogressively. With this understanding, the progressive sequence would then be obvious: the second coming, the judgment of the armies, the judgment of the Beast and the False Prophet in the lake of fire, the binding of Satan in the Abyss for 1,000 years, the reign of those participating in the first resurrection, the final judgment and the new heavens and new earth.
The 1,000 years are taken symbolically to mean the complete and full present state of the Church. Verses 1-3 would then refer to the present age here on earth with Satan bound from deceiving the nations and stopping the spread of the gospel. Verses 4-6 would refer to this same period in heaven with the departed souls of the redeemed with God.
The first resurrection is said to be a spiritual resurrection of souls into the presence of God. (Augustine added to this the spiritual resurrection of the redeemed on earth according to Ephesians 2:1). The second resurrection is the one general physical resurrection at the end of the age.
In response to this interpretation Henry Alford gave the well-known quote:
If, in a passage where two resurrections are mentioned, where certain psychai ezaesan at the first, and the rest of the nekoi ezesan only at the end of a specified period after the first; if in such a passage the first resurrection may be understood to mean spiritual rising with Christ, while the second means literal rising from the grave, then there is an end of all significance in language, and Scripture is wiped out as a definite testimony to anything.32
Millennial Expectation and John's Intent in Revelation 20
There was a well established belief in the ancient world that there was to be a literal 1,000-year millennium of peace and righteousness upon the earth.
Bishop Russell of Scotland, an anti-millenarian, says:
With respect to the millennium it must be acknowledged that the doctrine concerning it stretches back into antiquity so remote and obscure, that it is impossible to fix its origin. The tradition that the earth, as well as the moral and religious state of its inhabitants, were to undergo a great change at the end of 6,000 years, has been detected in the writing of Pagans, Jews and Christians. It is found in the most ancient of those commentaries of the Old Testament, which we owe to the learning of the Rabbinical school.33
Zoroaster, an ancient Persian philosopher, taught “in the end Sosioch [a name resembling in sound the Hebrew Messiah] makes his appearance, under whose reign the dead are raised, the judgment takes place, and the earth is renovated and glorified. . . . He also taught the six-millennial duration of the world.”34
Theopompus, who flourished in 340 B.C., relates that the Persian Magi taught the present state of things would continue 6,000 years, after which Hades, or death, would be destroyed, and men would live happily. Bishop Russell, from whom we extract, adds that the opinion of the ancient Jews on this point may be gathered from the statement of a Rabbi who said, “The world endures 6000 years, and in the 1000, or millennium that follows, the enemies of God will be destroyed.”35
The ancient Etruscans taught, “The world was formed in the course of six periods; each period comprehending a millenary; while 6000 years are allotted for a seventh period, viz, that of its duration.”36
Rabbi Elias, a Jewish doctor of high antiquity, lived, says Bishop Russell, about 200 years before Christ. His opinion is called by the Jews, “A tradition of the house of Elias.” He taught that the world would be “2000 years void of the law; 2000 years under the law, and 2000 years under the Messiah.” He limited the duration of the world to 6,000 years and held that in the seventh millenary, “The earth would be renewed and the righteous dead raised; that these should not again be turned to dust, and that the just then alive should mount up with wings as the eagle: so that in that day they would not fear though the mountains be cast into the midst of the sea. Psalms 46:3.”37
There was also a contemporary millennial expectation in John's day. Rabbi Gamaliel, the teacher of Paul, used the phrase “in the land that the LORD swore to give your forefathers” from Deuteronomy 11:21, to demonstrate the resurrection of the dead to silence the Sadducees. He said, “as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had it not; and God cannot lie; therefore, they must be raised from the dead to inherit it.” The importance of this quotation proves that there was a real, literalnot figurativeanticipation of an earthly millennial reign in John's day.
Acts 1:6 is the last of many dialogues of expectation that the disciples had with Jesus on the subject. In each case Jesus never speaks to correct their core conviction of an expected physical kingdom but by implication or limited qualification seems to encourage it.
The Sibylline Oracles are frequently quoted by the early Church Fathers. They are a rare and ancient writing of Greek verse comprising fourteen books by various authors, some written before Christ and some after. These oracles, as well, taught of a coming millennium. This millennium with surrounding judgments is one of the strong themes of the oracles. (Paul quoted from these writings in Acts 17:28 and Titus 1:12).
Finally, it is well known that John's nemesis and Gnostic contemporary, Cerinthus (A.D., 100), taught of the coming of Jesus before 1,000 years of sensuous pleasure, after which there would be a consummation of this age.
In John's day there is little or no evidence that this period of 1,000 years of bliss was ever understood in any other way than the literal. The evidence abounds that such an interpretation and expectation was strongly set in the minds of his contemporaries. The weight of both the ancient expectation and the contemporary expectations makes it highly unlikely that John would have chosen to use such a culturally overloaded language unless he had intended not a figurative understanding, but a literal one. In the same way the audience that heard and read John would have been so primed by the contemporary expectation that they certainly would have received the millennial language in the framework of the popular literal expectation.
5. The Relevance of Premillennialism for the Future of The Christian and Missionary Alliance
A final consideration must be given to the value of this doctrine as it applies to The Christian and Missionary Alliance. Many of the views of Dr. A.B. Simpson on this topic and its relationship to the early Alliance were presented in response to the postmillennialism that was around at the end of the last century. This concept of postmillennialism was largely humanistic and promoted a social gospel ministry for the Church. Its confidence in the growth of the human spirit left one unguarded against the darkness of his own nature, and unimpressed with his need for the abundant life of Jesus within him which would enable him to please God. Here was an optimistic view of history that set, accidentally or not, man at its center. Dr. Simpson's view of history and what the future would eventually comprise, however, required the active intervention and revelation of Jesus Christ.
Dr. Simpson was not so pessimistic that he saw the earth passing away without a golden age of historical peace and a reign of righteousness. He was not so optimistic that he saw that age coming by any other means than the intervention of the Son of God as King of the earth. In all this he looked beyond to the great and final glory of the eternal state, where God, having brought in the ultimate expression of glory in history, would climax His display of glory throughout all eternity.
The Alliance teaching on the centrality of Christ in the history of the world is evidenced by its unwillingness to be sidetracked into focusing upon God's dealing with the nation Israel as the primary key for understanding eschatology. Rather, the focus remained on Christ, the blessed Olive Root of the people of God and the basis of blessing for Jew and Gentile in every age and in the age to come. Together there would be one fold, regardless of the administration, in the millennium. This truth is expressed in the structure of the New Jerusalem where on the gates of the city are engraved the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel and on the foundation stones are the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. In the city of God it is Jew and Gentile who will, when grafted into Christ, live as the people of God.38
Alliance Distinctives in Review
Now consider again the five distinctives introduced at the beginning of this paper in order to help answer the question, “How relevant is this doctrine in giving focus and direction to The Christian and Missionary Alliance?” Consider the following questions.
Is it possible to be motivated for missions and be either amillennial or postmillennial? Is it possible to issue a call for holiness through the abiding life of Christ and be either amillennial or postmillennial? Is it possible to develop a Christocentric view of history and be either amillennial or postmillennial? Is it possible to believe in the inerrant Word of God and be either amillennial or postmillennial? Is it possible to affirm the integrity of God and be either amillennial or postmillennial?
To all of these questions, in deference to both the amillennialist and the postmillennialist we must give a resounding “Yes.”
The Transcendent Integrity of God
One should remember, however, that the early conviction of the Alliance was that the overriding purpose of human history was the glory of God, a public display of His integrity. This glory manifested in the Church, manifested in the Son and manifested in God's faithfulness to Israel was reflected in the premillennialism of the Alliance. Dr. Simpson wept when he read the Balfour Declaration to his congregation, following Allenby's taking of Jerusalem. That declaration stated, “His Majesty's Government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. . . .”39 Dr. Simpson later wrote, “Israel is going home and Christ is coming back again!”40
This same premillennial sentiment for God's glory and integrity is expressed by Marv Rosenthal when he writes,
If God does not keep His word to Israel, He is not true. If God does not have power to fulfill His purposes, He is not omnipotent. If God does not know that certain things are going to occur and gets caught off guard, He is not omniscient. If God has wearied of Israel, He is not long-suffering. If God has changed His mind, He is not immutable. And in this we must be clearif God has changed His mind in relation to His purpose for Israel, perhaps He will change His mind concerning His purposes for the Church. Perhaps we do not have a home in glory land. Perhaps He is going to rescind His grace toward us. Enough! God is holy, just, true, loving, good, long-suffering, faithful, omnipotent, immutable, and infinitely more. In the first instance, the millennial issue is not prophetical, it is theological. It is not so much a consideration of what will happen tomorrow, it deals with what God's character is like today. Because He is a faithful God, He will keep His promises to Israelthat requires a literal, Millennial Kingdom established by the Lord Jesus Christ. God will keep His promises to the believerthat requires a home in glory in His presence forevermore.41
The Infallible Word of God
It must be recognized again that it was the belief of the founders of the Alliance that this teaching was true to the testimony of Scripture.42 Among every other perceived advantage, it kept the Old Testament from becoming a deserted city, left only for Bible scholars and archaeologists to rummage through for relics of abandoned and voided hopes. Instead, the Old Testament remained a living testament to the sufficient and assured grace of Christ for every age and for the ages to come. As such, the whole of the Word of God is understood to be living and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword and fit for every man and woman of God (see Hebrews 4:12).
Although Dr. Simpson was committed to the study of types within the Scripture, he held to the literal and historical nature of the Bible.43 The great danger introduced by the combination of Darwinism, liberal theology, the Social Gospel and liberal biased critical Bible scholarship in Dr. Simpson's day was the erosion of long held beliefs. Along with this erosion, “Modernism” effectively removed the Word from the rank and file of Christianity and placed it in the hands of an elite “scholarship.” Against this tide, premillennialism supported a counter-movement of growing confidence in Scripture expressed in the belief that every part of the Bible could be understood in its literal and normal sense; that, excepting the cases of resulting absurdities, it should be taken literally. This confidence turned common people boldly back to the Word, and as they applied this principle of understanding the Scripture to both Old and New Testament prophecy, they saw written there the secrets of a coming millennial kingdom over which Christ would reign as King upon the earth.
Loraine Boettner, postmillennialist, recognizes this point of a literal, not letter-al, interpretation of prophecy when he admits that, “It is generally agreed that if the prophecies are taken literally, they do foretell a restoration of the nation of Israel in the land of Palestine with the Jews having a prominent place in that kingdom and ruling over the other nations.”44 This was a part of what the early Alliance saw in the millennium and what they invited its rank and file membership to see in their private and public study of the Bible.
The Centrality of Christ
The centrality of Christ was seen in His progressive goal for history climaxing in a reign of glory in which all the nations are subject to His rule of peace for 1,000 years. Today Christ's rule in history is the invisible reign within the hearts of God's children. This rule is hidden from the world's view. The rule of the eternal state shall be outside of history. But in history there shall be the final phase of time in which Christ shall rule from an earthly throne and display His glory over time, in time. Thus, nothing of the created order shall escape the full manifestation and reign of Christ's glory in it, not even time.
The millennium, ending in a final rebellion, will also serve to commend the justice of God on that last day of judgment. Man will have demonstrated, in that day, that his sin is due to nothing else than the depravity of his own heart. This fixed and progressive goal of history, that Christ shall be glorified and demonstrated as triumphant in time and place, was the hope of the early Church and the source of their encouragement in the face of a corrupt age. It was a hope renewed in the movement of the early Alliance.
It was not the threat of judgment alone but the hopeful prospect of a historical holiness, a Christ-in-us-ness that should ultimately inspire God's children. Holiness in Jesus is not only a taste of finding heaven today, of living in the glory; it is the foreshadowing of a real and earthly reign of glory that we shall enjoy with Christ in time, on earth. Dr. Simpson wrote, “Because we are going to be like Him, then, we wear His image now. We anticipate our coming glory . . . so we try on even here the robes of our approaching coronation.”45
Dr. Simpson pushed this application home strongly in his exposition of Isaiah 11: “We have no right to be looking for the millennium unless we have the millennium in our own hearts. We have no business to expect an eternity of peace if we are living in strife and envy now. Let us begin the millennial life here if we expect to enjoy it by and by.”46
A Missionary Alliance
It is true that premillennialism teaches that the only hope for the future of the world is Christ, not Christianization. Therefore, people need to be saved out of the world. Yet there is as well the hopeful incentive that one day Christ will rule the nations and gather from them the fruit of worship from upon this earth, in time and as a goal of history. For the early Alliance each victory won overseas, and here, was a small foreshadowing of the triumph Jesus was bringing to earth and to eternity. Dr. Simpson's call to bring back the King was less the cry of desperation as it was a call to join in Christ's ultimate triumph.
It is possible to hold to these five passions for the integrity of God, the inerrancy of His Word, the centrality of His Son, the prospects of His sanctification and the supremacy of His mission apart from one's view of the millennium. Still, for the Alliance these passions have risen historically, not in spite of its eschatology, but in some ways uniquely because of it. These things are more closely related than we can appreciate at first or second glance. They are intertwined in a delicate cause and effect. We should devote ourselves to fully understand the role this position had in shaping our denominational distinctives and emphases. As the Alliance moves into a new century, in a check against historical drift, care must be taken not to cut the cords which bind us to the moorings of our movement even as we hold fast to that which is good.
O Christ, my Lord and King, this is the prayer I bring,
This is the song I sing: Thy Kingdom come.
Help me to work and pray, help me to live each day,
That all I do may say, Thy kingdom come.
Upon my heart's high throne, rule Thou and Thou alone;
Let me be all Thine own! Thy kingdom come.
Through all the earth abroad, wherever man has trod,
Send forth Thy Word, O God, Thy kingdom come.
Soon may our King appear! Haste bright millennial year!
We live to bring it near. Thy kingdom come.47
1 Raymond Ludwigson, A Survey of Bible Prophecy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978), 96.
2 A.B. Simpson, The Coming One (New York: Christian Alliance Publishing, 1912), 7-18.
3 Ibid., 16.
4 Ibid., 152-153.
5 George N.H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1988), 449.
6 D.T. Taylor, The Voice of the Church on the Coming and Kingdom of the Redeemer or A History of the Doctrine of the Reign of Christ on the Earth (Boston: H.L. Hastings, 1861), 52.
7 Ludwigson, A Survey of Bible Prophecy, 127.
8 Dr. Renald Showers, “A Description and Early History of Millennial Views,” Israel My Glory (June 1986): 25.
9 David Larsen, Jews, Gentiles and the Church (Grand Rapids: Discovery House Publishing, 1995), 120, citing Tertullian, Against Marcion 7.5.9.
10 Brian E. Daley, The Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 61.
12 Ibid., 68.
13 Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992), 49.
14 E.A. Pinell, Christian League Newsletter on The Millennial vs. Amillennial Debate, 1980, 9.
16 Larsen, Jews, Gentiles and the Church, 122.
17 Augustine, The City of God, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), series I, vol. II. ed., 426.
18 E.A. Pinell, Christian League Newsletter, 10.
19 Walter Elwell, The Concise Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 314.
20 A revealing study of Augustine's Neoplatonism is found in Robert J. O'Connell, St. Augustine's Early Theory of Man.
21 Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 183.
22 Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More, 50.
23 Elwell, The Concise Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 314.
24 Larsen, Jews, Gentiles and the Church, 123.
25 Taylor, The Voice of the Church on the Coming and Kingdom of the Redeemer, 200-201.
26 Larsen, Jews, Gentiles and the Church, 124.
27 Ibid., 127.
28 Ibid., 126.
29 Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More, 89.
30 Ibid., 97, quoting Premillennial Essays by West.
31 Simpson, The Coming One, 201.
32 Robert G. Clouse, The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1977), 37-38. The quote of Henry Alford is cited by George Eldon Ladd.
33 D.T. Taylor, The Voice of the Church on the Coming and Kingdom of the Redeemer, 25, citing Bishop Russell from Discourse on the Millennium, 39.
34 Ibid., 28, citing Dr. Hengstenberg in Christology, vol. 1, 16. Dr. Hengstenberg thinks Zoroaster stole and adulterated the truths of Revelation.
35 Ibid., 27.
36 Ibid., 28.
37 Ibid., 25-26.
38 Keith Bailey, Christ's Coming and His Kingdom (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1981). Chapter six, entitled “The Rich Root of the Olive Tree,” is a wonderfully sweet discussion on this matter and resounds with a feel of the central glory of Alliance Christology applied to eschatology.
39 Abba Eban, Heritage: Civilization and the Jews (New York: Summit Books, 1984), 256.
40 Simpson, The Coming One, 192.
41 Marv Rosenthal, “The Importance of a Premillennial Theology,” Israel My Glory (October 1986): 7.
42 The hermeneutical assessment of the basis of premillennialism is bound up in an understanding that the 1,000 years referenced in Revelation 20:1-7 is a literal period of 1,000 years. For a thorough presentation of the literal interpretation of these passages see Robert L. Thomas, Revelation, An Exegetical Commentary (Moody Press, 1995), vol. 2, 403-423 and also Excursus 4 at the end of volume 2. The author states
Chronological sequence is the natural understanding of the visions. Also the Old Testament framework that supplies the foundation for this book requires a future period on earth to fulfill the promises of a Messianic age. It is a structural necessity of Revelation that this 1000 years lies in the future too. . . . If the writer (John) wanted a symbolic number why did he not use 144,000 (cf. 7:1; 14:1), 200,000,000 (9:16), “ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands” (5:11) or an incalculably large number (7:9)? The fact is that no number in Revelation is verifiably a symbolic number. On the other hand, nonsymbolic usage of numbers is the rule.”
For a concise summary of the genre and hermeneutic of Revelation and further study for the compelling case of a literal interpretation see Revelation, An Exegetical Commentary, vol. 1, 23-39.
43 A.B. Simpson, Divine Emblems (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1995), 9.
44 Clouse, The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, 95.
45 Simpson, The Coming One, 203.
46 A.B. Simpson, Christ in the Bible SeriesIsaiah (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, n.d.), 146.
47 A.B. Simpson, Songs of the Spirit (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, 1920), 122.
Training Missionaries to Resistant Peoples, Timothy C. Tennent
Premillennialism and the Alliance Distinctives, Joel Van Hoogen
Approximating the Millennium: Premillennial Evangelism and Racial Reconcilliation, Douglas Matthews
Implicit Christians: An Evangelical Appraisal, K. Neill Foster
Elio Cuccaro, Ph. D., Editor
©2006 by K. Neill Foster